IN A LETTER TO OSKAR POLLAK, Franz Kafka famously declared his preference for books that act as an axe to break up the frozen sea within us. I had good cause to recall this quote in early January when I first received the shortlist of poems for the Bliss Carman Award. I was in my usual January funk—chilled to the bone, weary from the darkness, half-heartedly battling my latent hibernation instinct. The frozen sea was very much within me when the winning poems of this competition flashed out like Kafka’s axes. These four poems made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and my cheeks flush with blood. They did what poems ought to do—they woke me up.
“Annie Pootoogook” by Natalie Appleton is startling in its clarity and precision. The poem grounds us in the concrete, in the proper noun, the fish sticks and frozen dinners and the sidewalk outside the Murray Street mission that demonstrates an attentiveness to the visual perfectly matched to this meditation on a lost light of visual art. Appleton’s poem expresses emotion without sentiment, resonance without cloy, compassion without pity, leaving us, just as with Pootoogook’s last drawing, suspended in love, in life.
Angeline Schellenberg’s “Warming Up” provides a dazzling display of linguistic playfulness and wild invention. Where Appleton emphasizes the visual, Schellenberg teases with sound. Her poem suite is a bravura of jazz improvisation, and her instrument is language. She plays variations on the vernacular; riffing on the associative and alliterative links between words and images. Yet, the slight disjunction between image and word transforms this suite into a glorious cacophony.
“Just a Man” by Mollie Coles Tonn is an incantatory meditation on solitude, on being, almost, not there at all. Wielding a hard-boiled lyricism, the poem estranges the reader from her surroundings, luring her to this spare and wondrous island where a Caliban-like figure names his world into being.
Finally, I would like to (honourably) mention Kerry Ryan’s “Bedtime Story,” a sardonic take on motherhood that perfectly balances the poignancy of the new mother’s anxiety and exhaustion and the sly wit that bespeaks survival.
Now it is summer, and the sleepy undertow of January is a memory. Nevertheless, these poems still show how awake we weren’t before we read them. Read these poems now, feel your blood move.